Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Books Read in 2013, Part I

I read.  It’s what I do.  I’m one of those people who always has a book in his hand and is generally happy to focus on it rather than on whatever it is I am supposed to be focusing.  If there is no book I’ll read newspapers, magazines, web sites, box tops, traffic signs, sugar packets, or warning labels.

Not instruction manuals, though.  Not usually.  You have to draw the line somewhere.

This was the year for long reading projects.  My “re-read the entire Discworld” project came to a conclusion in January.  I read all of Jacqueline Carey’s “Terre d’Ange” series.  I plowed through a fair amount of Oz, though only one of the L. Frank Baum originals.  It’s been a fun year.

Since I started this blog I have kept track of the books I’ve read, jotting down little reviews as I finish each one.  And here they are.

Welcome to my world.


Making Money (Terry Pratchett)

Moist von Lipwig is back.  The Post Office has been restored to respectability and profitability under his watch and bores him to tears.  But the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork is a mess.  Its previous chairman died under circumstances that most citizens wish had been at least a little more mysterious.  The current chair – his widow – lives barricaded in her office with her tiny little dog Mr. Fusspot.  And the Lavish family, who controls the Board of Directors, would qualify as a cesspool of madness and intrigue if someone would only clean it up a bit.  Moist wants nothing to do with all this, but when the current chair dies and leaves a majority share of the bank to Mr. Fusspot – and Mr. Fusspot to Moist – he can’t avoid it.  Throw in a new discovery in the world of golems, and you’ve got a story that flows quickly by, produces a number of happy laughs, and gets you safely from one end to the other without too much of the thinking that is the hallmark of the better Discworld books. 

Unseen Academicals (Terry Pratchett)

As part of his continuing effort to find a way to tell stories set in Ankh-Morpork without centering them on Samuel Vimes, Pratchett sets out the story of how soccer came to the Discworld.  It’s framed around Romeo and Juliet, with the rival families being replaced with rival team supporters in the best tradition of British soccer hooliganism, but the focus remains fairly steady on the equivalent of two of Shakespeare’s minor characters – Juliet’s nurse (here represented by Glenda, the head of the Night Kitchen and a woman whose views of social justice echo those of the offstage Sam Vimes) and Mercutio (here represented by Mr. Nutt, another in a series of persecuted Other species, who comes to the big city of Ankh-Morpork to find his fortune).  There are some really funny bits and the underlying moral structure is of a piece with the larger Discworld ethos, but by any reckoning this is one of Pratchett’s lesser works.

The Familiars (Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson)

Somewhere in this book is a rather charming little story about three plucky familiars – animal companions of wizards – who suddenly have to rise to the occasion and save their little kingdom after their wizards are captured by the evil queen.  That story is buried deep beneath some of the worst writing ever to escape editorial scrutiny, however.  Epstein and Jacobson have never met an adjective they couldn’t stuff into a sentence.  Characters are simply labeled – “evil” ends up sounding like part of their birth name – and there really is a place called “The Sunken Palace” in here.  The authors spend interminable amounts of time telling rather than showing, often using Bulwer-Lytton-contest-quality sentences to beat deep psychological explanations into the skulls of their readers.  And sprinkled throughout like gravel in pancake batter – equally jarring and indigestible – are random SAT words that the intended YA audience for this book will find completely incomprehensible.  Lauren and I read this for a bedtime story, and it was truly a labor of love that I managed to complete it with her.  She could focus on the story.  I kept gagging on the writing.  There are two more books in this series, but I think there will have to be some recovery time before I can face them.

I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett)

I’m going to miss Tiffany Aching.  Pratchett has said that this would be her last book, and I’m just hoping he’s wrong about that as she has become one of my favorite characters.  The Cunning Man – an ancient spirit of disembodied hatred and intolerance – has returned and is poisoning the minds of the Discworld against witches, and Tiffany is his main target.  She also has to deal with a funeral for the old Baron, and the upcoming wedding of the new Baron – her old companion Roland – to a wet hen who turns out to be more interesting then she first appears but who has a fearsome mother.  The plot wraps up a bit too easily for all of the build-up it gets, but the joy of this book is the ride – seeing Tiffany mature into a strong young woman, the natural heir of Granny Weatherwax.  Eskarina Smith, of Equal Rites, also makes a number of appearances as a now much older woman, which furthers the whole “passing on the craft” theme of the Tiffany Aching novels.  It would be interesting to see what happens when the student outstrips the teacher, when Tiffany surpasses Granny Weatherwax.  There would be all sorts of conflict there, I think, and that would be a fantastic novel.  I hope Pratchett writes it someday.  This book also contains one of my favorite lines from the Discworld series: “When I am old, I shall wear midnight.  But not today.”

Snuff (Terry Pratchett)

When Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is forced to go on holiday out in the country, you just know that things will not remain quiet and peaceful for long.  For one thing, he hates the countryside.  Vimes is a creature of the city and everything about the countryside either infuriates him or annoys him.  For another, Vimes is a copper, and wherever coppers go crime will follow.  Thus he stumbles into another of the standing moral issues of the Discworld – the maltreatment of entire races based on intolerance and prejudice.  In this case the race is the gnomes and the maltreatment extends all the way to slavery and murder, which makes this among the darker Discworld books, though you know that it will all work out in the end because it always does, though not necessarily quite how you think it will.  There is a subplot involving Young Sam’s quest to become a scatologist (now six, he has moved on from Where Is My Cow? to a new favorite book, The World of Poo, and he gets to meet the author, Felicity Beedle), and the character of Willikins, Vimes’ chief servant, gets a bit of development as well.  Overall not one of the best of the Discworld books, but respectable and worth reading.

Terry Pratchett Presents Miss Felicity Beedle’s “The World of Poo:” A Discworld Delight for Readers of All Ages (Terry Pratchett, assisted by Bernard and Isobel Pearson)

And so the “Re-read All the Discworld” project comes to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper, and with the only one I hadn’t yet read.  There are a couple of ancillary Discworld books that I could move on to now (the three Science of the Discworld books, for example) as well as other new Pratchett books I have collected, but it is time to switch gears and read something else for a while.  It was a good and worthwhile project.  This is a book in the same vein as Where Is My Cow?  In Snuff, Young Sam is now six and has outgrown Where Is My Cow?  His new favorite book is The World of Poo, and he is just thrilled to meet Miss Felicity Beedle.  This is that book.  It is done in the style of those “adventure books for boys” that were popular in the early 1900s and tells the story of a young country boy on his first visit to Ankh-Morpork and his quest to build a poo collection.  Along the way he meets some recurring Discworld characters (notably Harry King) and discovers quite a lot about his subject – the book is surprisingly and accurately informative in a way that would probably appeal to the purported main audience.  It’s a trifle, but a decent one.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)

One of the things that people often forget about Abraham Lincoln is that he was an astonishingly good politician.  He understood people, and he understood how to shape them toward his own ends.  He did this with a magnanimity of spirit and a warmth that has seldom been equaled in American politics and never surpassed.  Reading this thoroughly researched, gracefully written book, you discover anew just what a tragedy for the United States his assassination was.  Goodwin enmeshes Lincoln thoroughly in the political context of his day by combining his story with that of Edward Bates, Edwin Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, Montgomery Blair, and – most importantly – William Seward, men who were rivals of Lincoln but whom he placed in his Cabinet and whom he welded into quite possibly the most effective such body in American history.  Goodwin clearly has her favorites – Stanton, Seward, Gideon Welles, and New York State boss Thurlow Weed all emerge as compelling figures alongside Lincoln himself, while Chase and George McClellan come across as at best obstacles (Chase) and at worst snakes (McClellan).  If you are looking for a single book to introduce yourself to Abraham Lincoln – for the first time, or once again – this would be an excellent choice.

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Dan Wakefield, ed.)

Kurt Vonnegut did not lead a very happy life, but he did lead a well-chronicled one.  This book is exactly what it says it is – a collection of his letters, beginning with his release from captivity at the end of WWII and ending not long before his death in 2007.  Here is a chronicle, roughly monthly, of the ups and, more often, downs of his life as he progressed from aspiring writer to published writer to famous writer to cultural figure.  Along the way his family grows, splits, shrinks, and evolves.  The letters provide two lessons.  First, that Vonnegut was not a natural writer.  These are not elegant prose specimens, most of them, though they are very much in keeping with his published works in terms of style and content.  That those published works are of so much higher quality says much about his willingness to revise and polish.  And second, that collections of letters mean more when you can see both sides of the correspondence.  The only letters here are Vonnegut’s, which means that Wakefield spends an inordinate amount of time introducing the various names that appear in them so that the letters make sense to the uninitiated reader.  There are few insights here, but you do get an opportunity to hang out with one of the most interesting minds of the 20th century for a while, and that is worth the price of admission all by itself.  It made me want to read his books again.

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (Henry Wiencek)

Henry Wiencek may or may not be a historian, but he certainly does not write like one.  He is a tour guide.  He is an advocate.  And most of all he is a moralist with a timeless cause independent of the contingent complications of history, a man who finds slavery abhorrent and who is determined to show just how hypocritical Thomas Jefferson was because he tolerated it – even embraced it, at times – despite his oft-stated uneasiness with the institution.  There is no real grey in Wiencek’s world, and he does not care much for subtlety.  This is a problem when dealing with Jefferson, a man regarded by his own contemporaries and peers as bafflingly nuanced.  So all of the “Jefferson was a slave-owner!” stories get trotted out – he sold people, he countenanced their mistreatment, he fathered children with one (Wiencek is a firm believer in the Sally Hemmings story), and so on, and Wiencek grieves for his fallen hero.  The book gets more even-handed as it goes, though it is still full of “must haves” and “certainly would haves” that indicate the proper moral position that Jefferson would have taken had he only been fortunate enough to have received the guidance of Henry Wiencek.  The book adds little for those who have studied Jefferson, but would likely be surprising for most readers.  It has its flaws, but it does raise some interesting questions.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir (Jenny Lawson)

Jenny Lawson writes online as The Bloggess, and this is, from what I could see, a collection of things that mostly appeared on her blog before.  And if you’ve ever read her blog, you know this is a great thing.  This is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time – cheerfully vulgar, laugh-out-loud stuff about her childhood in rural Texas, her family, her marriage, and her battles with illnesses both physical (arthritis, etc.) and mental (OCD and severe social anxiety, among other things).  There are some serious things in here, such as her difficulties with pregnancy, but mostly it’s a window into the world of someone who is looking at things from a very different angle than the rest of us do and thus finds herself doing things like waving a machete at the vultures who are trying to eat the family dog she just buried or replaying conversations with her long-suffering husband about the likelihood of zombie apocalypse.

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett)

I read this last year as part of my “Re-read the Discworld” project so I won’t repeat the review here, but when Lauren decided she wanted to read it as a bedtime story I eagerly agreed – it’s funny, it’s very well written (in stark contrast with the previous book we slogged through), and it features a strong female lead character about her age.  How can you not win?  And then Tabitha decided she wanted to listen in, and so did Kim, so it became a family event.  Evenings that end with the entire family listening to Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle are good evenings.

Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Ideal in an Age of Discontent (E.J. Dionne)

In this exhaustively researched and well argued book Dionne seeks to explain precisely why modern American politics is so dysfunctional, and his analysis is quite impressive.  His main thesis is that historically American politics has been a careful balancing of individualistic and communitarian impulses.  Different parties, ages and factions have chosen to balance those differently but with one glaring exception there always being such a balance.  That glaring exception was the Gilded Age, a 35-year chunk of the 19th century where a radically individualistic politics became the norm, much to the detriment of American society.  It is one of the strengths of this book that he demonstrates so clearly how aberrational the Gilded Age was – how thoroughly it broke from the politics set up by the Founding Fathers and even the politics created by Andrew Jackson, and how convincingly most Americans, even conservatives, rejected it afterward.  This becomes critical because the modern Republican Party, in its Teabagger incarnation, sees the Gilded Age as the model for all American politics and is distorting both the historical record and current politics in order to reimpose it upon the nation.  Dionne – a proud liberal who nevertheless values the contributions made to the US by conservatives – makes a persuasive case that this extremism is a direct repudiation not only of American history in general but of American conservative ideals in particular.  In striving for a radically extreme and historically ungrounded individualism as the core of American politics, the Teabaggers are systematically destroying the Long Consensus that guided the US into being the most prosperous and powerful nation on earth over the course of the 20th century, and unless they are checked our future looks grim indeed.  I was particularly impressed with Dionne’s analysis of the Founding Fathers – few journalists know that classical republicanism even existed, let alone can incorporate it correctly into a larger argument.  This was an excellent book, and I can think of few people who would not benefit from reading it.

Redshirts (John Scalzi)

This is an oddly structured book – one short novel and three “codas” of varying length at the end – but it works because the focus is different for each.  The novel itself is pretty much what you would expect from a Scalzi novel – light reading, a fair amount of action and wordplay, and well written overall.  Basically it takes three tropes – the “Redshirts” from Star Trek who everyone knows are expendable, the awareness that dawns on these Redshirts that comes from Six Characters In Search of an Author (though Scalzi attributes it to other, similar works), and a fair bit of borrowing from Terry Pratchett’s theme of how stories (in this book, “Narrative” – always capitalized) have the power to direct reality.  The main characters are a group of Redshirts and the central plot is what happens when they figure out that they are characters in some other Narrative, a Narrative that can only be satisfied by their deaths.  Eventually the travel outside of their fictional universe (and here Scalzi namechecks Jasper Fforde) to meet their creators, who are somewhat surprised to see them.  It’s a fun book – not the laugh riot the cover blurbs insist it is, but well worth reading.  The emotional heart of the book is in the codas, however, because here is where Scalzi really delves into what it might mean to have a fictional alter-ego out there who is, in some sense, as real as you are.  A book that provides a fair amount of humor thus ends on a moment of grace that makes you rethink all that came before, and it is these codas that elevate the book from an amusing trifle to something more thoughtful.

The Cricket in Times Square (George Selden)

Chester the Cricket is from Connecticut, but due to a picnic mishap he ends up in Times Square.  He is among friends, though – Tucker the Mouse, Harry the Cat, and the Bellini family who runs the newsstand at the train station there.  The Bellinis are just scraping by, but Mario – the son – takes good care of Chester anyway.  In repayment, Chester plays beautiful music on his wings.  This is a slight, gentle, heartwarming tale of friendship and the things you do for those you care about, and it was always one of my favorites growing up.  Now that Lauren has it as an assigned book for school, I am looking forward to her reading it.  But it was worth re-reading all on my own.  I had forgotten how much of an emotional punch it carries.

The Crystal Singer Trilogy (Anne McCaffrey)

Crystal Singer

Killashandra Ree is a singer.  She has studied for ten years for a chance to become one of the Federated Sentient Planets’ stars, but when she fails her final audition she is at loose ends.  A chance meeting will bring her to Ballybran, the planet where the various crystals so critical to the functioning of the FSP are mined and where her skills will drive her to become a crystal singer.  But there is a cost involved, for crystal singers are both more and less than human.  This is the story of how she becomes a crystal singer – her training, her first missions, and so on – and it sets up the remainder of the story.  It’s a well-told story, but very clearly a product of a specific era of science-fiction writing.  There is an emphasis on Privacy (always capitalized) and more than a bit of deliberately casual sex (always tastefully off screen) that hearkens back to Heinlein, for example, and Lauren took one look at the cover and said, “That’s so ‘80s!”  Yes, indeed, child, and how would you know?”  It’s a straightforward story, entertaining and well written, and reminiscent of a simpler era of storytelling.


It’s several years later, and Killashandra is now an established crystal singer.  But part of the job means getting off planet, and when she takes an assignment to repair a crystal-driven organ on the planet Optheria, she ends up with more than she bargained for.  She’s also there as a spy, to check into why nobody from that planet ever seems to want to leave and whether this is voluntary.  It isn’t, of course – what kind of a book would it be if it were? – and in getting to the bottom of this poor Killashandra ends up getting into and out of all sorts of trouble, some of it political, some of it physical, and some of it romantic.  These books are single-layer stories (set-up, conflict, resolution, without the multiple plotlines interacting that are the more usual narrative today), and their simplicity is vaguely refreshing that way.

Crystal Line

Killashandra is old now, and all of the degradations that a crystal singer is subject to are now happening to her – memory loss, irritability, failing health.  This book is mostly concerned with what happens after the main story is over, and while it has plenty of adventure of its own (and a rather odd sort of twist at the end that, frankly, is a sort of cop-out by McCaffrey), it is in every respect a coda to the main story.  As a historian, I like stories that deal with memory and its role in life, so I enjoyed this one.

Angelmaker (Nick Harkaway)

There are few authors out there today who have as much fun with the English language as Nick Harkaway does.  His first novel, The Gone-Away World, remains one of my all-time favorites, and his second novel is a worthy successor to it.  Joe Spork is a clockmaker, a craftsman in a mass-produced world, the grandson of a clockmaker and the son of one of England’s most notorious gangsters.  Edie Banister is nearly 90, a former WWII British spy with one last mission to complete.  And when her world collides with Joe’s it unleashes a maelstrom of skullduggery, crime, philosophy, religion, and legal issues that involves Joe’s mother (now cloistered), his law firm (the estimable partnership of Noblewhite Cradle, including Polly Cradle – a woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it), an order of monks devoted to John Ruskin, an Oriental despot named Shem Shem Tsien, the Night Market (where England’s top criminals meet to trade), the Waiting Men (a fraternal organization of undertakers), and a machine that may well allow for total and perfect knowledge and thus the end of free will and the universe as a whole.  It’s even weirder than it sounds, and the fact that Harkaway can keep this unwieldy creation moving forward at such a clip and with such utter grace is a testimony to his formidable writing skills.

 W;t (Margaret Edson)

One reason I don’t go to parties much is that I often end up sitting in a quiet room reading whatever I find on the bookshelves and frankly I can do that at home with significantly less fuss.  But so it goes.  This is a one-act play whose title should be read as “Wit” – I’m not entirely sure why Edson thought there should be a semi-colon there instead of an “i” as it is not explained anywhere in the text, but there you have it.  Vivian Bearing is a scholar of English literature, an expert on the metaphysical sonnets of John Donne, and a cancer patient.  She has, at the opening of the play, just been diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer (“There is no Stage 5,” she mordantly observes at one point) and the play chronicles both her aggressive chemotherapy and her slow coming to grips with her own death and what that might mean.  It’s a surprisingly graceful play about the importance of kindness when all else is stripped away, though not really something appropriate for a party.

A Hat Full of Sky (Terry Pratchett)

We continue reading the adventures of Tiffany Aching as bedtime stories, Lauren and Tabitha and I.  As with The Wee Free Men, I described the book last year when I read it as part of my “Re-Read The Discworld In Order” project so I won’t duplicate that here.  It’s good to share Tiffany growing up and finding her own strengths with my daughters, who are about that age and embarked on a similar mission, growing up and finding their way in this world.

Arguably: Essays (Christopher Hitchens)    

Seven hundred and fifty pages of Christopher Hitchens is probably too much at one time.  An essayist and provocateur, his work is likely best sampled in small doses – at book length, it gets tiring.  This collection is mostly reviews of books or other such things, reviews which quickly veer off into their own topics and positions before tying things up neatly by returning to the original subject.  And there are any number of other essays here as well, all loosely grouped by general theme and all culled from a larger body of work over the last decade or so.  His positions are well argued and his language is finely crafted, his erudition and breadth of knowledge are mightily impressive, and his moral framework is clear for all to see.  But if I do go back to explore his older collections (there will be no future ones, as Hitchens passed away in 2011), I will do so more selectively.

The Woman Who Died A Lot (Jasper Fforde)

Jasper Fforde’s head must be a fascinating place to live, if the sheer number of oddball ideas and throwaway zingers in this book is any indication.  This is the seventh installation of his Thursday Next series, a literary detective story set in an alternate England where literary crimes are taken seriously and the boundary between fiction and reality is porous.  Detective Thursday Next is recovering from injuries incurred in the previous book but itching to get back into the newly reconstituted Spec-Ops.  Instead she is named as the head of the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-At-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library.  This turns out not to be the easy retirement pasture she was expecting.  Goliath Corp. (notably in the person of her old nemesis, Jack Schitt) is up to its usual world-domination tricks.  Thursday still has a mindworm that makes her think she has a daughter named Jenny.  An asteroid is scheduled to destroy the earth in a bit over thirty years but time travel (and the Chrono-Guard with it) have been retroactively abolished.  And Swindon is scheduled for a smiting from the revealed Deity in a week’s time.  How all these separate strands mesh together is a mystery, but a fun one.  Thursday Next is one of the more fun series in contemporary fiction, and I look forward to the next one.  No pun intended.


John Healy said...

"Team of Rivals' was really good. I'm halfway through Jenny Lawson's book as I type. Terry Pratchett is something of a new "disc"overy for me. He's dependable.

David said...

Pratchett took about four or five books to get rolling, but he's been consistently one of the more thought-provoking and laugh-inducing writers in the English language ever since. Going through them all in order in one go was rather eye-opening that way.